First Latina state school superintendent's goals for equity, preschool, state tests
Carmen Ayala is no stranger to trailblazing.
During her 36-year career in education, Ayala was the first Hispanic woman to lead as superintendent of Berwyn North District 98, as assistant superintendent at Plainfield District 202 and as director of school improvement at Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300.
She now takes the helm as Illinois' first female and Latina state superintendent of education.
"I know what to expect in many regards, because sometimes you have to work twice as hard to be thought of half as good," Ayala said. "I come with battle scars, with experiences ... and I hope that as people get to know me, get to know my experiences, my backgrounds and how my decisions are made, they will learn that I'm going to do a good job for the kids in Illinois."
Ayala began her career as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools for five years. She also served as an assistant superintendent, director of bilingual services and teacher in East Aurora District 131. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Mundelein College in Chicago, a Master of Business Administration from Dominican University in River Forest and a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from Loyola University of Chicago.
She sat down with the Daily Herald last week to discuss her vision for the state's public school system. Below are excerpts of her interview:
Q. What are some challenges of catering to the unique needs of a diverse group of 852 urban, suburban and rural school districts statewide?
A. It's about leveling the playing field and looking at the needs of the children in the respective schools and not necessarily giving each school equal (resources), because they don't have equal needs (such as through poverty or demographic shifts).
Q. How successful has the state's evidence-based funding formula -- adopted in August 2017 -- been in bringing school districts closer to adequacy targets?
A. There have been $667 million already distributed into the funding formula. We have the tiered system, which is really providing more resources to those schools with the lowest adequacy levels. We have about 23% of our districts at 90% of adequacy -- districts range from 47% adequacy all the way to 280%. That's the inequity in the resources that are provided to students in schools across the state. There's been a lot of good movement to fulfilling that adequacy level.
Q. What are some of your priorities for education funding?
A. One pillar of the evidence-based funding model is adequacy. The second pillar is equity. In the evidence-based funding model, there are three additional buckets: additional dollars districts are receiving for children who come from homes with limited resources, children who have special education needs, and English learners.
What we need to do is take a look at how those dollars that are intended for those specific needs are being utilized in school districts. One of the things that we'll be seeing now in the School Report Card this year for the first time is site-based expenditure reporting. That is going to help to foster more conversation about the connection between resources and supports for students, programs and student needs.
Q. How much emphasis is the state board placing on early childhood education? Is there a need for more investment in this area?
A. Six of my 11 years in the classroom were spent at the kindergarten level. I have great appreciation for the early childhood work that is being done. It is the foundation. We can't wait until third grade, the first state assessment result, to be able to determine they're not doing well in reading or math. We need to start early on in early childhood programs.
A large number of our school population are children that come from homes with limited resources. The one place that is impacted greatly is language development, because children who come from homes with limited resources don't have the opportunities to have the technology, to go to the museum, to go on family trips abroad, to have so many experiences that some of our other children might have.
This has a direct impact on language development, on experiences, which translates then into that foundation that's needed for ... solid literacy development. The General Assembly recently passed adding an additional $50 million. We were hoping (for) $100 million but will take the $50 million. (It) will predominantly be used to help create more (preschool) slots."
Q. Do you advocate the state move toward universal preschool or full-day kindergarten for all?
A. I believe in early intervention, absolutely. Full-day kindergarten ... it means double the staff and double the space. And so when we talk about providing preschool for all of our children, then we have to look at not only the funding but (also) the staffing, the space and everything that comes with it. Not insurmountable, but definitely a challenge.
Q. You talk about overhauling the state's controversial testing system, replacing the patchwork of tests students take from kindergarten through high school with one measurement. Why and how do you plan to achieve that?
A. Here's the current state: we have the KIDS (Kindergarten Individual Development Survey) assessment at the kindergarten level ... grounded in the California Early Learning Standards. Then we have, starting in third grade through eighth grade, the Illinois Assessment of Readiness, formerly known as the PARCC, that is grounded in the Illinois Learning Standards, aka Common Core. In 11th grade, we give the SAT (college entrance exam) grounded in the college and career readiness standards. So when we want to look at children K-12, we have apples and oranges.
The other thing is ... because the state assessment is given toward the end of the year and we are not getting results until summertime or late summer, the kids are already gone. Wouldn't it be nice if we had a state assessment K-12 that could be given three times a year ... so it would be less testing time?
It would be given in a way that results were immediately (available). And you would have forms of the test with accommodations and modifications for our special needs students ... and available in native language.
Q. How much should the state be investing in career and technical education programs?
A. I believe (students) should have exposure to and experiences (of) all kinds of career exploration pathways. It's important that they have the basic skills, in terms of reading, writing and communication, but a way that they could also take those skills and apply them in a teacher pathway program, which we really need to have more high schools do and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.
Where we can engage and create more partnerships with the business sector in creating internships, career exploration opportunities for our students, that's only going to benefit the students and our communities in the long run.
Q. How is the state addressing a growing teacher shortage and the long-term diversification of its teaching workforce to better cater to an increasingly diverse student population?
A. There really is a concern with the numbers of individuals going into teacher preparation programs, as well as completing those programs and even alternative certification programs. Our staff is combing through all of our rules and regs and looking for ways that we can make sure we are doing everything we can on a short-term basis to open up those opportunities.
We're talking about providing some flexibility with licensure. Just last week, the General Assembly approved the elimination of the basic skills test (that requires teachers to pass the ACT college entrance test) through 2025. There is criteria for candidates to enter a licensure program, so if they've met that criteria and successfully completed a teaching preparation program, they pretty much should have their basic skills in place.
The data was also indicating that a lot of our individuals of color were the ones that couldn't necessarily pass the basic skills test. Long-term, the agency had awarded teacher leadership program grants to school districts across the state, helping develop their local capacity to solve problems of recruitment, preparation and the utilization of teacher leaders.
We're looking at teacher residency programs as well. Teachers are leaving the profession within their first five years. When we don't have a good mentoring and induction program, the likelihood of them leaving is even greater.